NOTE: One of the best ways to measure the success of an NFL team is through Expected Points Added, or EPA. Expected points use historical data to find the average number of points a team is likely to score on any given drive based on down and distance. It is founded on two basic football principles: as a team gets closer to the goal line, their chances of scoring improve, while a team’s likelihood of scoring decreases on later downs. EPA measures the expected points gained on a certain play. For instance, if a team makes a third-down conversion, they have both gotten closer to the goal line and gotten back to first down, so their EPA would be positive. This method helps to differentiate the importance of yards gained in different situations. A 5-yard gain on third-and-4 is much more valuable than the same 5-yard gain on third-and-10.
With that in mind, here’s a look EPA numbers in some of the key Week 8 matchups in the NFL:
Steelers (6-0) at Ravens (5-1)
Two reasons the Steelers are still undefeated are their passing improvement from last season and their stellar defensive performance. Pittsburgh has had the biggest improvement in EPA/Pass from their 2019 performance. The return of Ben Roethlisberger has provided a big shot in the arm for the offense, increasing their EPA/Pass by 0.390, a significant boost. The Steelers once again have one of the top defensive units in the league, with the fewest yards allowed per game of 286.3, and only allowing 68.8 rushing yards per game. They also lead the NFL in pressure rate, generating pressure on over a third of all passes. This combination of stuffing the run and consistently creating pressure on passes is what makes this unit truly elite and could spell trouble for the Ravens.
Stopping Baltimore’s rushing attack may limit play-action opportunities and force QB Lamar Jackson to win from the pocket, where he has struggled. During the 2020 season, Jackson has an EPA/Pass of -0.131 on straight drop-back passes from the pocket, putting him near the bottom of the league. On play-action, he has an EPA/Pass of 0.265, fourth in the NFL. To defeat the Steelers, Baltimore needs to find some creative ways to run the ball and set up play-action opportunities. If they get behind early and Jackson must make plays from the pocket, it may be tough for them to come back. The Ravens and Steelers rank 1-2, respectively, in blitz percentage on defense, so both QBs will have to get the ball out quickly on Sunday.
Saints (4-2) at Bears (5-2)
Quarterback controversy has been a big storyline in Chicago, with Nick Foles taking the starting spot from incumbent Mitch Trubisky in Week 3. While neither quarterback has lit up the scoreboard, Trubisky’s EPA/Pass through Week 3 was higher than that of Foles during his time under center. Trubisky posted a slightly positive EPA/Pass of 0.009, while Foles posted a -0.123 EPA/Pass. Granted, Trubisky’s performance was buoyed by some poor defenses faced through the first three weeks, but the quarterback position continues to hold back the Bears’ potential for success.
On the other sideline, much has been said about the struggles of Drew Brees without his top receiving option, Michael Thomas. Thomas has been sidelined since Week 1 due to a variety of injury issues, but how much has his absence really affected Brees? In 2019, Brees’ EPA/Pass when targeting Michael Thomas was 0.495, while his EPA/Pass when targeting any other player was 0.051, a difference of 0.444, almost half a point per target. This is a significant dip in production from the loss of one player, and a big reason the Saints have had a slow start this season. Brees will clearly be the top QB in this matchup, but if Thomas misses another week, he may struggle against the stellar Bears defense.
49ers (4-3) at Seahawks (5-1)
The biggest story for the Seahawks has been the gap between their offensive and defensive performance. Through Week 7, Seattle has the second-best offense in the league by DVOA with the 28th-ranked defense. A few other teams with top offenses and bottom tier defenses in the past few years have made strong playoff runs, the 2018 Chiefs and 2017 Patriots, but failed to win the Lombardi Trophy. The 2018 Chiefs finished with a 13-3 regular-season record and made it to the AFC Championship before falling to the Patriots in OT, while the 2017 Pats lost in the Super Bowl to the Foles-led Eagles. Thus, history shows that the Seahawks could make a strong playoff push but may fail to claim the ultimate prize.
The 49ers have been bitten with the injury bug, with the most impactful loss coming on the defensive side of the ball. Top pass rusher Nick Bosa was carted off the field Week 2 with an ACL tear. Despite his absence, the defense has continued to be one of the top 10 units in the league – but one area they have struggled is containing mobile quarterbacks. So far this season, San Francisco ranks in the bottom five in the league defending scrambling QBs, allowing 0.887 EPA/Scramble. The Niners need to shore up their containment or Russell Wilson’s legs may be the X-factor in this NFC West showdown.
Cowboys (2-5) at Eagles (2-4-1)
The injury problem in Philadelphia has been well documented, and no facet of the Eagles’ performance has been more impacted than the passing game. Many of the top receiving options for QB Carson Wentz have missed significant time, including WRs Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and Jalen Reagor, as well as TE Dallas Goedert. Wentz’s passing efficiency has been dismal this season, with a -0.117 EPA/Pass, but having these top targets back would have significantly helped his passing numbers. Every one of these injured pass-catchers had a positive EPA/Pass when targeted, the top being the rookie Reagor with 0.338, (though on a small sample size of only five receptions) followed by Goedert with 0.143, Jeffrey with 0.124 (from 2019) and Jackson with an EPA/Target of 0.036. If some of these targets were able to return, the Eagles’ passing game could get a big boost.
Injuries have been a theme for the Cowboys as well, with QB Dak Prescott suffering a season-ending ankle fracture. Andy Dalton took the helm after the injury, and while in concussion protocol, will likely be their signal-caller for the rest of the season. The drop-off in performance between the two quarterbacks has been significant so far, with Dalton posting a -0.188 EPA/Pass, compared to Prescott’s 0.074. The difference of 0.262 indicates that Prescott was gaining over a quarter of an expected point per pass more than Dalton during the 2020 season. With the NFC East race wide open, it will be interesting to see which team can overcome their injuries and vie for the top spot in the division.
Colts (4-2) at Lions (3-3)
One of the positional matchups to watch in this game is Indianapolis’ offensive line vs. Detroit’s defensive line. The Lions rank in the bottom 10 in pressure rate, creating pressure on less than one-fifth of all passes. The Colts’ offensive line ranks in the top 10 in pressure rate allowed and has allowed the fewest sacks of any team (5). With this stark contrast in the trenches, Philip Rivers should have plenty of time to go through his progressions and pick apart the Lions’ defense.
This game features two seasoned veterans at quarterback, one in Stafford who is in his 12th season with the same team, and the other, Rivers, who is in his first season in Indy after playing 15 seasons for the Chargers. Over their careers, the two players have combined for over 100,000 yards, 670 touchdowns, and have made nine Pro Bowl appearances. This season, Rivers has had more success, with 0.162 EPA/Pass, 11th in the NFL, while Stafford has 0.080 EPA/Pass, 21st in the league. The Colts have made the third-biggest jump this season in EPA/pass, due in part to Rivers’ performance along with stellar offensive line play. While the Lions could keep this game interesting, the numbers favor the Colts.
* Data compiled by Robert Simpson from NFLfastR, SIS Data Hub, and Pro Football Reference